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A memorial outside the Abbotsford, B.C., hotel where eighteen-year-old Alex Gervais, who was in government care, was found dead.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The B.C. government cleared caregivers with criminal records to work with vulnerable youth at privately run group homes, says a lawyer for the company, adding that his client followed all the rules when screening employees.

The B.C. children's ministry cancelled its contracts with A Community Vision after an investigation found serious problems with the care provided by the agency, and that some of its caregivers had criminal records and two had outstanding criminal charges. After the homes were closed, authorities scrambled to find places for the 33 children and youth who had been living in ACV homes. One, 18-year-old Alex Gervais, was put in an Abbotsford hotel where he later died.

He was there against government policies that require senior ministry personnel to approve hotel placements, and despite assurances to the independent Representative for Children and Youth that no young people in government care would be placed in a hotel as a result of ACV homes being closed.

ACV's lawyer, Bryan Baynham, argued in a statement on Tuesday that a criminal record does not necessarily preclude someone from providing good care to a troubled youth.

"An individual who has made a mistake, been charged and been fully rehabilitated is often in the best position to understand and relate to a child facing similar challenges. They can serve as a role model that the child can bond to. You need these people to work with these children," Mr. Baynham said in the statement.

The lawyer went on to say the company received clearance letters from the B.C. Ministry of Justice approving each caregiver who worked with the group home's children.

"The clearance letter from the Ministry of Justice expressly stated that the Deputy Registrar had determined that the offence(s) did not indicate that the applicant presented a risk to children or vulnerable adults," he added.

Asked about ACV's statement, a spokesman for B.C.'s Ministry of Children and Family Development did not say whether the province had cleared ACV employees who had criminal records. But he noted the ministry beefed up its screening policies in December, 2014.

"These improved, clarified and more robust standards include requirements for a full home study and additional criminal record checks – including from the caregivers' home jurisdiction if they are new to B.C.," ministry spokesman Bill Anderson said in an e-mail.

When the ministry determines an agency cannot safely care for children, it can terminate its contractual relationship, as it did with ACV, he added.

Mr. Baynham said the ministry denied ACV an opportunity to respond to allegations and said the findings in the report "are not factual or accurate."

The investigation, a summary of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail through a Freedom of Information request, was heavily redacted and did not include details of individual criminal records of ACV caregivers.

But it linked several ACV caregivers to incidents ranging from failing to provide food to locking a youth outside on the balcony as punishment, and said criminal record checks on caregivers involved with those incidents "revealed history of domestic violence, weapons, physical violence, fraud, theft, assault, possession of a scheduled substance for the purpose of trafficking and outstanding criminal charges on two individuals."

The B.C. government does not ban people with criminal records from working with children. Under B.C. regulations, people who work with or will have unsupervised access to children are subject to a criminal record check. Anyone whose record suggests they present a risk of physical or sexual abuse to children or a risk of physical, sexual or financial abuse to vulnerable adults is not supposed to have access to those groups.

The issues that came up in the government's investigation of ACV are likely not isolated to one agency, said B.C.'s independent children's watchdog, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

"How confident am I that this is not more widespread?" Ms. Turpel-Lafond said Tuesday in an interview. "I'm going to go on the assumption, based on my experience of listening to the kids, that this a widespread set of issues."

Ms. Turpel-Lafond has detailed gaps in the residential care system – especially for children with complex mental health or physical needs – in several reports and says the province needs to develop a better system of oversight that would include random spot checks and more connection with the young people who are in the homes.

That oversight would require more money and more employees, NDP children's critic Doug Donaldson said, noting that Ms. Turpel-Lafond has pointed to lack of quality control in the residential services sector in several reports.

"Almost half the social workers in B.C. have 30 cases or more on their desk, and best practices are 16 or 17," Mr. Donaldson said. "The need for oversight requires the need for personnel on the front line."

Investigation of A Community Vision